With airlines rapidly expanding their networks and introducing new routes, hotel companies rushing to open more properties, and the government racing to improve tourism infrastructure before the Olympic Games next August, there’s no doubt that tourism to China is on a serious upswing. The country is already seeing more visitors than ever before, and tourism will likely ride the high long after the athletes collect their medals and go home.
All this added infrastructure brings China into the realm of travel possibility for people who might have previously considered the country too expensive to reach or too difficult to navigate. That’s not to say booking for travel during the Olympics will be easy though, since you’ll have to contend with the competition for accommodations, tickets, and activities that comes with the massive influx of spectators. However, increased options on the air and accommodations fronts will make things easier for Olympic and post-Games travelers than ever before.
U.S. airlines have been locked in heated battle for new routes to China, and last month, six of them came away victorious. Most triumphant are Delta and United, which will begin flying between Atlanta and Shanghai, and San Francisco and Guangzhou, respectively, in spring 2008. Approval will likely come soon for routes from four more airlines starting in 2009: American between Chicago and Beijing, Continental’s Detroit-to-Shanghai route, Northwest between Detroit and Shanghai, and US Airways’ Philadelphia-to-Beijing route. These new itineraries mark the first major effect of the recent U.S.-China open skies agreement, created in part to make access between the two countries easier and more affordable.
Meanwhile, Air China has announced codeshares with Cathay Pacific and is working toward joining Star Alliance, alongside airlines such as United and US Airways. And China Southern Airlines, which connects Los Angeles with Guangzhou, has just launched a new English-language ticketing site.
Airlines aren’t the only travel providers betting on China. Hotel companies are also racing to stake a claim. Best Western hopes to become the largest hotel chain in Asia within three years, and plans to have 50 hotels in China in the next five years. Starwood, which runs Sheraton, W, and Westin Hotels, already has more than 30 properties and is building dozens more. Marriott expects to have 11 hotels in Beijing alone by next August, and anticipates opening another 20 by 2010. And, Accor will open 18 more hotels in China this year, and plans to have over 120 hotels around the country by 2008.
Rising to meet the tide of visitors are new infrastructures such as airport terminals and better transportation options.
Beijing Capital International Airport will open its new terminal next year in time for the Olympics. The terminal, which has been celebrated as both beautiful and technologically advanced, will be among the world’s largest.
A new bicycle rental network in Beijing will have 200 locations throughout the city and offer 50,000 bikes by August of next year. And, to speed travel throughout China, bullet trains that cut travel times between major cities by 50 percent were introduced earlier this year. According to TravelMole.com (registration required), there will be more than 500 bullet trains in operation by the year’s end.
Put it all together and what have you got? A country that’s accessible like never before. The increase of major travel providers will not only bring an element of familiarity (which can be a bane or a boon, depending on your travel style), but the headlong rush by so many companies to claim ground in China means that the competition for tourism dollars should keep rates reasonable for most travel periods. Unfortunately, it may not hold true during the Olympics, when the demand is predicted to far exceed the supply. Scoring availability and the best possible rates during the Olympics will be a competition in itself.
Gymnasts, swimmers, and sprinters around the world have, in recent months, been competing for a place at next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Likewise, if you’re serious about getting maximum value out of your trip to the world’s premier sporting competition, you should be locking in your place at the Games now. Here are a few important tips to know before you book.
Booking a place to stay will be a competitive sport
According to the China Economic Review, about three million spectators are expected to pass through Beijing during the Olympics, but the city will have only about 420,000 rooms. As if that’s not enough, prices on airfare, hotels, and other travel commodities are expected to quadruple between now and next August.
That kind of math means inflated prices and tough competition for the city’s limited accommodations stock. One way to approach a trip is by finding a package provider or tour company to bundle your air, hotel, and other amenities. There are dozens of providers out there; you can start a search by checking the United States Tour Operators Association or the China National Tourist Office tour operators locator. Even if you don’t normally enlist professional trip-planning help, you might consider the help of a travel agent who specializes in China and can infuse the booking process with first-hand expertise. You can also always go it alone with the help of the Internet, a few guide books, and good sense. However you decide to book, finding maximum value for a big-ticket trip like the Olympics will require an early start and some independent research.
Not all Olympic events take place in Beijing
Beijing will be the center of the action, but it’s not the only city to host Olympic events. Sailing events take place in Qingdao, the equestrian competition in Hong Kong, and preliminary soccer matches occur in Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Qinhuangdao. If you’re particularly interested in a sport occurring outside of Beijing, you may be in luck, since it’s possible you’ll find better prices and easier booking at hotels.
There are a limited number of tickets
A little less than three-quarters of the total number of tickets to Olympic events are reserved for domestic sale in China, so international competition for the remainder can be tight. Between October and January, and then again after April, official U.S. Olympic ticket outlet CoSport.com will sell Olympic event tickets. There are ticket limits as well: each customer can buy up to eight tickets per event, and up to 48 tickets in total. You can find the competition schedule on the Beijing 2008 website.
You’ll need a visa
Before departing for China, you’ll need to obtain a 90-day tourist visa. To apply, take your passport to the nearest visa office. Sometimes travel agents or package providers will do the application legwork for you. Visas are not required for Hong Kong, however.
If you’re concerned with China’s human rights record, and want to find out how the government is progressing on its promise to promote human rights as part of its Olympic legacy, you can check the August 2007 Amnesty International report or visit Olympic Watch.com.
There’s no doubt that the Olympics have changed the face of tourism in China. Whether your interest lies in the event itself or with the country as a whole, you are sure to find a country that, in its preparations to host the whole world, has become more accessible to it.